Do you realize the importance front porch designs have on your home?
The correct front porch design will soften the appearance of the facade on the building.
The front porch creates sharp, interesting shadows that are pleasing to our senses, and provides a space for healthy outdoor living.
The porch balustrade (hand rail, foot rail, and balusters), columns, posts, and other porch features, all work together to tell a story that represents the style and period of the house.
The size and proportion of these various features are all based on the architecture of the building. Any alteration to a single element will not only upset the composition of the porch but the visual integrity of the building as a whole.
All the beauty and enjoyment a porch provides comes with a cost. Being so open and exposed to the elements, the porch railing, floor, columns, posts, newel posts, and balustrade take a huge amount of abuse from the weather. All of these features require much more frequent preventative maintenance, such as painting, than the house itself.
Unfortunately, many homeowners do not always maintain their porches as they should and their porches quickly deteriorate. Once we notice our porch has begun to deteriorate, we have lost our chance for an easy and inexpensive preventative maintenance procedure. We now need to make repairs, and this is where the problems really start!
A homeowner who neglects proper porch maintenance is committing the crime called “Demolition By Neglect”.
Without Porch Repair, Your Porch May be Lost Forever
Are you wondering whether you need simple porch repair or a replacement of your porch balustrade? First of all, if your porch is original to your home, it is very important to the overall aesthetics of the house that the porch railing, balusters, porch posts or columns and newel posts remain exactly as they are.
Unfortunately, this seldom happens even by homeowners who have the best of intentions. It is very possible that your porch, as you know it, may be a complete loss. There are a few reasons for this – some beyond the homeowner’s and contractor’s control. Thankfully, there are a few ways to avoid this problem, so read on.
Repair or Replace your Porch Balustrade?
The Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation offers the best advice for any work done to old buildings over 50 years old. It should not matter whether your home is a prime example of historic architecture or is just an average old house.
For the best possible curb appeal, any element on an old building should first be repaired. If repair is not possible, only then should it be duplicated exactly.
This rule is simple and basic – follow it. Avoid the temptation to be creative, settling for something else, or being influenced by a contractor or architect not “old house” qualified.
Falling off this path will affect curb appeal to the neighborhood!
Rotted wood can be repaired to look like new with easy-to-use epoxy fillers. If you have a rotted porch railing, it is best to repair before you replace. Unfortunately, today we live in a “disposable society”. Modern products are manufactured not to be repaired.
No Maintenance means cannot be maintained.
If something breaks the current mind-set to send it to the landfill and purchase a replacement.
Sadly, this is also the same mind-set of many professionals who do carpentry work today. If you are lucky enough for someone to actually respond to your phone call and provide you with an estimate for porch ideas, building a porch or porch repair work, be prepared for a large bill.
If a small amount of rot exists on your porch rail, the contractor will rarely offer to repair the rotted wood. Instead a complete replacement is usually suggested. Replacement should be your last resort! There are many problems with this option too.
You really need to be on the ball here. Don’t rush into making any hasty decisions or agreeing to have work performed that you may be sorry for later. After all, if the porch was maintained as it should have, you wouldn’t have to cope with the dangers and problems connected with replacement of porch features.
Inferior Porch Replacements – What You Need to Know Before You Replace Features on Your Porch
Your carpenter or subcontractor should be aware that you have an old (vintage) house, but there are a lot of old houses, and a lot of people that just don’t know better or care about what their house looks like. Unless your carpenter is a qualified specialist for historic buildings, don’t expect him to understand much more than you do.
You must realize that just because a carpenter loves old houses and works on a lot of old homes, it doesn’t mean they understand traditional aesthetics and the importance of proportion in architecture. Most of them should stay FAR away from old houses.
If you ask for original historic front porch designs, it may be a fun challenge for him. Review his plans before any work is performed. You may need to educate him. You can also contact Old House Guy for a review of his plans or to create a compatible design for you.
In many cases the carpenter will replace and reconstruct not only the railing, but the entire balustrade with what is currently available and popular in the large discount home centers.
That 100-year-old wood that was lovingly maintained for you by previous owners for many years will now go to the landfill and be replaced with today’s inferior fast-grown wood that will never last as long as the original, even if it is well maintained.
Old wood versus new wood – what does that mean and how can it effect wood products?
Your carpenter may tell you that they are still manufacturing the same style porch posts and railing. They can easily be replaced with something very similar if not exact. Don’t believe it!
Today there is an abundance of architectural products on the market promoted as historic styles. Unfortunately, although advertised as such, these products are cheap looking watered-down cookie-cutter versions of an original or merely a period interpretation designed by someone obviously unfamiliar with period details.
These are unacceptable replacements. Using one of these replacements here and there will eventually add up to a house looking like a joke to someone with a trained eye. Be aware that your carpenter may be most accustomed to repairing a porch in this manner.
Inferior Newel Posts for Your Porch
Beware of replacement porch newel posts. These watered down versions, although only about an inch or two narrower than an original, can drastically affect the overall appearance of a house, causing it to lose its sense of structure and appear to be off-balance.
A very popular style newel post actually made of real wood. Although this newel post is a similar style to the newel post on the right, it is entirely too thin.
A newel post like this cannot provide the appearance of a solid support anchoring the stairs and balustrade to the ground.
This toothpick styled post creates an appearance of weakness to the overall structure of the house.
Once your eyes are trained to see this you will pick it out every time.
Most porch newel posts on older homes were 5.5 inches wide.
This size is not easy to find today since it requires a large lathe. The 5.5 inch base width is a good starting point for most newel posts. I would not go any smaller for a newel post on the front porch of your house.
Some porches have much larger newel posts. Replacing newel posts to the correct size will require custom mill work.
Make some calls – it’s not that hard to find someone to make them.
If you like my newel post I created a CAD drawing and you can use a pdf of this to have one duplicated here. Old House Guy Newel Post. (Pending)
NOTE: Never rest wood on concrete! Concrete is porous and will allow water to wick into the wood. Brick or slate is good. Better yet is space.
There are metal or plastic feet that can be used as a spacer as in the above photo to the right. Be sure to periodically remove debris from underneath.
The bottom of the newel post should be painted and a layer of caulk applied for extra protection.
The newel posts should noticeably mark the entrance. They should be like open arms providing a feeling of welcome to visitors as they proceed up the steps to the house.
This photo is from my archive taken a few years ago showing Home Depot style, weak toothpick-like newel posts.
This entrance was corrected. The newel posts and balustrade on the steps have been replaced.
The entire house appears more grounded and the entrance welcomes you with a feeling of embracement.
Think of the newel posts as welcoming arms.
Custom Made Wood Reproduction Railing May Not be Allowed
A good carpenter may offer to custom-make a new railing using a high quality wood such as Spanish cedar (depending on your region). Although not nearly as good as repairing your original, this custom duplication will be your best bet.
Spanish cedar or a comparable quality wood for your area is expensive, but this is a good lesson learned on how important preventative maintenance can be. Just be very sure that the proportions and details will not be changed from the original railing.
Sounds like you finally have the answer to your problems right? No you don’t! You may have the perfect carpenter with the perfect experience, but your municipal building code may prohibit you from duplicating your porch railing!
Read on and find out why and what you can do.